Although many people in Serbia hold “poor” memories of NATO’s 1999 bombing of their country, it was, in fact, done precisely to protect them from their own government, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said in Belgrade.
He was answering questions about the bombing and about the NATO campaign against the government of the former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, during a meeting with the students of Belgrade University.
“I stressed that we did this to protect civilians and to stop the Milosevic regime,” Stoltenberg said, as quoted by the local media, claiming locals have poor memories of the events.
So NATO wants the alliance and Belgrade to “look into the future.” Stoltenberg also boasted of an “excellent relationship” between NATO and Serbia, adding that the military bloc “respects” Belgrade’s decision not to join the alliance. Still, he maintained that NATO wants to be Serbia’s “partner.”
He also said that NATO supports “dialogue” between Serbia and its breakaway region-turned-self-proclaimed state Kosovo, not only diplomatically but also “in the form of KFOR” – the NATO-led international peacekeeping force deployed to Kosovo.
His words came about a week after a brief escalation of tensions between Belgrade and Pristina sparked by the visit of Kosovo’s leader to a northern part of the breakaway region, which is populated by Serbs who refuse to recognize Pristina’s authority. The KFOR stayed conspicuously inactive during the incident, according to some reports while others suggested that the NATO-led force had even accompanied the Kosovo representative on that trip.
In March 1999, NATO launched airstrikes in what was then Yugoslavia, without the backing of the UN Security Council, after it accused Belgrade of “excessive and disproportionate use of force” in a conflict with insurgent Muslim ethnic Albanians in the region of Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence nine years later, in 2008.
During the bombings, NATO dropped “between 10 and 15 tons of depleted uranium, which caused a major environmental disaster” and prompted Serbians to sue NATO over its actions, linking them to a huge rise in cancer-related illnesses across the region.
“In Serbia, 33,000 people fall sick because of this every year. That is one child every day,” a member of the international legal team that was preparing the lawsuit told local media in 2017.